Miranda waits for audition results. Her impatience makes her do uncharacteristic things.
Waiting is Dangerous
The end of the audition was rather anticlimactic. The man with the bushy eyebrows got up stiffly from his too small chair and smiled at me. He nodded at whoever was behind the curtain and then we left the room. Inside, my stomach was still dancing although I couldn't tell if it was a nervous dance or a happy one. Whatever it was, I wished it would stop. I wasn't sure if I should be happy or devastated. I'd expected that I'd walk out of the room either crying or jumping for joy. Now, I realized those were unrealistic expectations. I don't cry and I don't jump for joy. Maybe I would when I learned if I made it in the orchestra or not, but for now, all I was left with was a big black question mark and that was certainly nothing worth jumping about.
As we pushed our way through the crowds still waiting in the hallway, I glanced at the man from the corner of my eye, looking for some hints for how I should be feeling. He smiled at me again in a way I think was meant to be reassuring. His eyebrows rose a tad bit too high though and he ended up looking somewhat skeptical.
"I can tell you practiced a lot," he said. I supposed that was one good thing about having so much time at home. I was left with nothing to do but practice. Suddenly, I noticed that he hadn't complimented my playing. He simply noted that I practiced a lot. A person can practice a lot and still not sound good. I squinted suspiciously at him but he only said, "You should receive your results by Monday. I hope its good news." He stopped walking and I realized that Mama and my sisters had materialized in front of us. The man turned to go and I opened my mouth, wanting to protest, but I doubted anything I asked would get him to tell me anything anyways so I remained silent.
Mama was silent too, her lips pursed in an uncomfortable way as I bent over and packed up my violin. She didn't even ask me how I did. She just stood there, tapping her toe, glancing warily about. Unexpectedly, my eyes began stinging. Perhaps I would cry after all. Thankfully, my sisters seemed to care much more and they rescued me from my momentary pity party.
"Did you win?" asked Sophia, sounding jittery like how I imagined I would sound if I spoke.
Talia sneered and said, "You don't win. It's not a contest. It's an audition. You either get a spot or not."
"Girls, don't argue. It breaks down relationships," Mama said, staring blankly ahead. The woman beside Mama gave her a strange look, but we were gone before she could say anything. I didn't say I what I wanted to say either. I didn't tell Mama that sometimes, being quiet can ruin relationships too. She wouldn't listen to me. She'd tell me that I wouldn't know--that I had never experienced a broken relationship. That was one of the things I was protected from apparently.
I suddenly remembered Sophia was still looking at me expectantly and Talia too, although she tried to cover her curiosity with a grumpy expression. I smiled at them, wondering what I should say. I didn't want to cover them with the same heavy blanket of doubt that I had draped across my shoulders, but I couldn't think of anything really positive to say either. "Yeah," I said, trying to sound confident, "I think I did fine, but we'll find out on Monday," I answered at last.
"We have to wait until Monday?" complained Sophia, mirroring my thoughts.
Talia raised her eyebrows. "Whoa, all the way until Monday? How will we ever survive?" she asked sarcastically, "That's a whole seventy two hours--"
"Talia!" Mama whisper yelled so that nobody in the parking lot would stare, "Sarcasm breaks a person down. Please, just be quiet." I could not read her expression, but she seemed almost angry in the way that she slammed the door of the van behind us.
Talia stared down at her lap as we buckled in. I felt sorry for her. Talia was normally not so irritable and I wondered what was up. It seemed that this audition stuff was already putting us all on edge. I never imagined that waiting for news would be as stressful as the actual audition. And it had only been ten minutes since I exited those doors.
Lying in bed that night, I counted worries instead of sheep. I never found that counting sheep helped me fall asleep, but counting worries certainly didn't help. Mama used to have a friend that said worrying gave you wrinkles and that she should stop worrying. Mama doesn't have that friend anymore. If that friend was telling the truth though, then I was going to be a seriously wrinkled old lady. Although I really preferred not to look like a dried up prune when I grew up, I couldn't stop thinking about all the ways I was taking dangerous risks.
What if I didn't make it in? Maybe I'd cry and feel rejected and my self esteem would be ruined forever. What if I did make it in? Maybe the music would be too challenging to play and I'd embarrass myself and then be kicked out of orchestra. What if the kids at orchestra were all rude, violent and never washed their hands? My head would be contaminated with bad words and I might catch a deadly disease that would put me in a hospital and my picture would be advertised above a caption reading, "Wash your hands or you'll end up like Miranda Triplet!"
All night long, my head ran on this treadmill of worry until I looked over at the clock on my dresser and realized that midnight had passed a long time ago. I blinked hard, but the red numbers resisted my interrogation and didn't admit the truth: it couldn't possibly be two in the morning. If worry didn't give me wrinkles, lack of sleep would.
I turned over to my side and stared at the dark wall. Occasionally, a car crept down our street and its headlights would make shadow stripes on my wall. Why would people risk driving at two in the morning I wondered, distracting myself from my worries. Maybe they were coming home from a party--a party with lots of people and games and food where everyone was having a great time doing things they weren't supposed to do. Maybe someone had had their first kiss at that party. They'd go home and not wash their face because they didn't want to lose the feel of soft lips on warm skin. Deliriously, I traced my finger down the side of my face and imagined I was that person coming home from the party. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, trying to conjure up a lingering aroma of something sweet and comforting. The only thing I smelled was the sharp scent of hand sanitizer stinging my nose. I sighed and nestled down further into my blankets until at last, I drifted off.
Grandma is Dangerous
As I expected, waking up the next morning was not an enjoyable experience. I did not wake up thinking happy thoughts about how blue the sky was outside, how soft my bed was, or how great church was going to be. I woke up wishing for soothing darkness and for whoever was rubbing my shoulder to retreat into some far away hole. I cracked my eye open a bit and peered up to see the face of Mama far above me. Her green eyes were crinkled in a half smile and her red, "all natural ingredients guaranteed" lipstick was applied perfectly to her smooth lips. I could tell she was, unlike me, thinking happy thoughts about blue skies and church. Like always, she had managed to push whatever anger and fear she was feeling yesterday deep into one of her secret compartments.
I knew that under her bed, she had a chest, a pink one, engraved with roses. In it were frayed, but still bright hair ribbons, a few stuffed animals and some pictures drawn by a young child's hand. On her bad days, she'd open up this chest and bring these objects to her heart, swaying to inaudible music. Other days, these objects would disappear deep down in the chest as if they had never been out to begin with. Her life was full of secret compartments and I knew better than to explore them.
I forced my eyes open the rest of the way and gave her a weak smile. Instantly, she stopped rubbing my shoulder and squinted at me suspiciously, most likely wondering what had caused my eyes to look like an albino bunny's eyes-- all pink and bulgy. I closed them again and moaned.
Mama raised an eyebrow and said gently, "Good morning sweetie. You look tired."
I mumbled something in agreement, hoping desperately she'd say I could keep sleeping.
She crushed my hopes with an abrupt, "Breakfast in ten minutes!" however and left my room, thick French braid swaying behind her. I could feel my own hair matted at my neck reminding me that I had ten minutes to make myself look less like a zombie before I went to church.
Reluctantly, I slid out of bed and stumbled towards my dresser where an atrocious pink dress was waiting for me. I knew without doubt that my sisters would be wearing identical dresses to this one. The only difference would be that theirs would make them look like angels while mine would make me look like an overstuffed, overcooked sausage. I spent three minutes trying to wrestle it on and when I finally succeeded, I was hesitant to look in the mirror. As I walked past it though, I couldn't help seeing the way the pink fabric stretched across my chest, the hem dangled four inches above my knee, and the sleeves barely reached my wrists. The bow in the back was comically large making me look like some cartoon fourteen year old dressed for Easter egg hunting. I blushed, camouflaging myself into all this pink fabric and looked quickly away.
As I hurried down the stairs I tried to force the picture of myself from my mind. It made it easier for me to imagine I was just a normal teenager, like the ones at my church, allowed to wear what I wanted. But I knew other stuff came with being a normal teenager that I didn't want. Stuff like mascara stains down the sides of faces, not caused by a bad make-up job. I didn't quite know what caused those black stains, but when our Sunday school teacher asked those girls what was wrong, they'd mumble things like, "Relationship problems," or, "I wish everyone would just leave me alone." Then, they'd either sniffle pathetically or glare at everyone including me like we should know better than to stare at someone going through such awful things. But really, I didn't know better because I still wished for the life they had.
Suddenly, I was interrupted from my daydreams by the sound of running water and the voice of Mama reminding my sisters to wash in between their fingers. Sophia leaned over the kitchen sink and scrubbed at her hands vigorously with a bar of soap that I knew was very expensive. I wondered if our father ever checked to see what we did with all the money the court made him send us. He was rich, so he probably didn't care, but if he ever bothered to find out where his money went, he might realize soap was a larger expense then food for us. Maybe that would worry him. Maybe it wouldn't.
I got behind Talia and began rolling up my sleeves so they wouldn't get wet. The three of us waited in line like three identical mannequins fresh off the conveyer belt until our hands at last passed inspection and we sat down to eat.
Ten minutes later, we were out the door, each of us carrying a Bible and a purse holding some change to put in the offering plate.
As we climbed in the car, I saw that the lady who lived in the house across from us was leaving her house at the exact same time. She hobbled towards her Buick, giving us a friendly but toothless grin. She waved good morning at us and the wrinkles underneath her arm wobbled. I'd never talked to her before, but she seemed nice. I'd always wanted to pet her cat. It was really fluffy and looked somewhat like an exploded cloud. Maybe if it ever wandered over to our yard, I could pet it without Mama seeing. That was doubtful though. Not because Mama would see, although she probably would, but because Exploded Cloud the Cat never, ever left that lady's driveway. It had been lying on that same slab of cement for as long as I could remember as if its butt was glued to the ground. This morning, the cat seemed to be in a grumpy mood and hissed randomly when we started our car, fangs bright white against its pink tongue. I knew all about hard mornings and I looked at the poor creature sympathetically. It narrowed its glowing green eyes at me and then looked slowly away.
I watched the cat disappear in our review mirror until it was nothing but a too-fat cotton ball in the distance. I searched the driveways of other houses in our neighborhood as we drove slowly and safely by to see if there were any other driveway dwelling cats. There weren't, but there were some driveway dwelling dogs. Mean ones that bared their teeth and barked when we passed, wiry hair standing on end as if hundreds of cars didn't pass every day. Half the time, their barking would be followed by the abrupt voice of a man yelling at the animal to be quiet using words I only guessed were English. I knew that if I didn't recognize the words, then they probably weren't good ones.
We rolled past the sign marking where our neighborhood started and turned onto a busy road, meeting with the routine honking of traffic angry at us for going speed limit. Mama had never sped before and it may or may not have been because our car only went fifty miles per hour. She had never run a red light either or forgotten to use her turn signal. Although this was obviously the safe way to drive, it didn't get us to church any faster. Not to mention, driving through downtown Raleigh on a Sunday morning was not exactly smooth sailing.
Our old Baptist church was situated in a very unfortunate position in the middle of the downtown of North Carolina's capitol city. Maybe years ago it had stood on a nice plot of green grass with only the trees around it. Now, the old stone building with the wooden cross on the steeple was out of place, shadowed by expensive cafes and designer shops, apartments and stern, grey sky scrapers. Beside it was a small section of grass some people called a park. It only lasted for about a block however, turning quickly back into more buildings. Most of the time, the benches of this "park" were occupied by sketchy characters and/or pigeon poop. The one tree in all downtown it seemed, was a massive oak towering above the majority of the "park" and a portion of our church's roof. I noticed for the first time this morning that its leaves were tinted with fall colors and a few yellow leaves had fallen to the curb where we parked.
As we stepped out of our van, the leaves shifted and crunched underneath our black church shoes. Their crumbled bits and pieces resembled faded stain glass windows like the ones that decorated our church.
Beside us, a women stepped out of her car and breathed in deeply, her large, dark shoulders rising. "Isn't autumn beautiful?" she exclaimed, slamming her car door behind her.
"Yes. It is," replied Mama stiffly, brushing a speck of leaf debris from Sophia's hair. "A good morning to you Betsy," she added briskly and ushered us up the stone steps to the heavy wood doors, left wide open.
We dodged about a hundred handshakes on our way to our usual pew. Mama had taught us how to politely avoid a handshake and how to end a conversation without sounding like the introverted people we actually were. I still didn't really feel polite though whenever I pretended not to see a person waiting with their arm extended or scampered away from waiting conversation. As long as we made it to the front pew though, we were safe.
Mama reached our pew first today, but she paused and I could tell she was taking a deep breath. Sitting at our pew was a dark skinned lady humming happily. When she saw us, she knew better than to greet us with touch and instead gave us a large smile. All her white teeth showed and her second chin wobbled beneath her first one.
"Hello Tata," chirped Sophia.
Our grandma responded with a cheerful, "And how are my favorite grandkids doing today?"
We were obviously her favorite grandkids because she hadn't met any of the other ones. Our father had been her only son and when he left us, he left her too. His leaving was a cruel version of "killing two bird with one stone," except it was more like, "killing five family members with one plane ticket." Nobody really died when he left. I don't even remember him, but I could tell there was a part of Grandma that died. With every letter she received not addressed from him, that something died even further. She hadn't heard from him in those ten years. If he had other kids, she didn't know about it. We knew he wasn't married, the court would have told us that, but Mama said people could have kids without being married. She never explained this disturbing concept any further, so I still didn't understand it. I supposed I could ask any other fourteen year old and they'd readily embellish on this subject, but I didn't think I wanted to know. For the time being, I was happy believing we were our grandma's only and favorite grandkids. I knew that made us each feel special.
I could tell both my siblings yearned to hug her now, but that was something we did only when Mama wasn't around. At the moment, they just gave two happy, identical smiles in return and said, "We're great today, thanks Tata."
Then, we all sat down, one long row of brown skin and curly dark hair ending with Mama's cream colored complexion and ash blonde braid. If everyone at the church didn't know every little bit about every single member, they might not have known Mama was part of our family. She sat with too much space between her shoulders and grandma's shoulders hinting even further that they weren't related. Mama didn't adore her like we did. I think grandma made her think of our father. When she thought of our father, she needed space--an ocean of space. She settled for a few inches.
I fiddled with the pages of my Bible and waited for the sermon to start. I tried to ignore the giggling of girls a distance behind me, knowing what I'd see if I turned around. There would be five of them, huddled together, whispering secrets and comparing pictures on their phones. They'd be talking about some movie I wasn't allowed to see and spoiling the ending to some book I'd never read.
I tried to think thoughts of phone calls announcing I got a spot in the orchestra, but even this didn't distract me from my fellow teens behind me. I risked a peek and the light streaming through the doorway reflected off of a bejeweled phone case, practically blinding me. The phone was held in the outstretched arm of a girl named Gabby. I could tell she was taking a picture of the five of them. Even though Caroline started protesting, saying her hair didn't look right, I also knew the picture would be amazing. All their hair looked fine and even though their dresses were shorter than mine, they didn't look too small the way I knew mine looked. They all smiled glamorous smiles and squished their faces together. You would think they hadn't seen each other in months. An eternity later, they got a picture everyone liked and Gabby miraculously put her phone in the pocket of her monogrammed jacked.
They started to find a pew where they could all fit together just as Pastor Larry lumbered up to the podium. The girls sat down quickly and I briefly made eye contact with a red headed girl named Madi. She gave a tight lipped smile as if her lip gloss had somehow hardened. I spun around to face the front and turned my attention to the pastor.
"Good works won't get you to heaven!" He bellowed his opening statement and thumped his tattered Bible for good measure. Already the most enthusiastic church members began firing out a steady stream of "amens" and "yays Lawd Jesus's," their tongues running a mile a minute.
"But God put us on this earth for a reason," continued the Pastor and the church quieted for a second waiting to hear what Pastor Larry thought that reason was. He went on to talk about all the things we, as good Christians, should do.
"You can't do all these things and still be protected inside your soft and easy lives either," he yelled at one point. For a second, his brown, old man eyes were reaching right into mine.
I dropped my gaze to my lap though, and he went on yelling about how Christians didn't try hard enough to be a good example. I snuck a peek at Mama beside me and noticed that she was fidgeting worse than my sisters and staring out the window as if she was seeing Jesus himself coming down from the clouds. She didn't like what Pastor was saying. That much was obvious. Unlike movies she thought were "inappropriate" though, she couldn't just turn him off. She was forced to sit there, chewing her lip and twisting the handle of her purse until at last, the sermon drew to a close. I had been having troubles listening too, mostly due to lack of sleep, but one of his closing announcements caught my attention.
"Our church has recently had an amazing opportunity to go help at a homeless center. This homeless ministry is called God's Feast. Maybe some of you have heard of it, but this wonderful organization has been short of volunteers for a few weeks and personally asked this church to send some healthy workers over to help on Saturdays. I'm sure we have plenty of people willing to go," he paused and the amens came right on schedule. Pastor went on, "The ministry specifically requested youth to come. Many children come to this center needing simply to have a conversation with someone close in age to them. It's a really great ministry opportunity and I'm sure there are some of you who can make time in your busy Saturday mornings to help," he concluded, "Drop by Saturday at nine o'clock and we'll all drive over in a bus together."
A few people hollered that of course they'd be there and then he dismissed us. Normally, I'd forget anything that guy just said for the past hour as soon as we exited the church. Today was different though. For some reason, even after we drove to Grandma's house and sat down to eat lunch together as an almost-whole family, I still couldn't forget this final announcement. I didn't even notice Grandma staring at me over the rims of her reading glasses until she cleared her throat.
"Miranda child, I know you have something on your mind," she said, and everyone in the room froze. The only sound came from the clock in the corner of the cramped dining room. It was in the shape of a cat face and its eyes darted and forth with every second in a very creepy way. Just like that cat's eyes, the eyes of everyone in the room seemed to search me desperately. I could've mumbled that I didn't have anything on my mind and we all could have resumed eating. It's what I normally would've done. Maybe it was stress from the audition that pushed me to answer truthfully, but I regretted it immediately.
"Well I was kind of thinking I might want to go with that group of volunteers to God's Feast," I said quietly. Mama inhaled quickly and at the same time, Grandma nodded approval.
They glared at each other for a second before Mama said, "There are so many reasons I can't let you do that Mouse. Think of the sicknesses floating around in that place and the dangerous people. It's really not something you should be exposed to," she finished and the conversation was closed.
Grandma was not finished though. She didn't say anything more, sealing her lips with a small half smile, but when I glanced at her, her right eyelid drooped. I couldn't tell if it was just an old lady issue or if she had winked. By the twinkle in her brown eyes though, I figured it was the latter of the options.
"Let me put the dishes away," Grandma said abruptly, starting to get up from the chair. Mama protested, but Grandma didn't stop. She plowed towards the kitchen like a stubborn ox, stacking plates and bowls expertly on her arm as she went. She left towards the kitchen when suddenly, we heard a loud thud and the sound of dishes rolling across the floor.
"Tata!" shrieked the twins. Mama raced towards the kitchen with the three of us on her heels. We crowded around the doorway and met with a very chaotic scene. Grandma appeared fine--flustered, but fine. The dishes however created a map of disaster on the blue tile floor. They were plastic, so there were no dangerous glass scattered about, but the kitchen was a mess nonetheless.A few of the bowls had landed upside down, spilling left over peas and soup across the floor. Some sort of liquid had splattered across the black refrigerator.
"Are you okay?" whispered Mama, still shocked.
With every word she said, my heart pounded.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Grandma reassured us, steadying herself, "Just tripped over this clutter here." She gestured towards a pile of newspapers, old tennis shoes and some other stuff I couldn't even label. "The house has gotten to be such a mess and I'm afraid I'm gonna hurt myself," she paused, her face slowly lighting up, wrinkles lifting gradually in a smile, "I have an idea!" she exclaimed with the kind of joy only an old lady can show, "Why don't you drop Miranda off here for a few Saturdays and she can help me pick up? Then you can spend the morning with your two youngest daughters. Doesn't that sound nice?" Grandma asked, smiling sweetly.
I peered at her from the corner of my eye, then it hit me. Grandma was lying. I braced myself, expecting Mama to also immediately recognize this suggestion as nothing but a trick. She'd know right away that as soon as she dropped me off, Grandma would take me to the church so I could volunteer. It was every grandmother's weakness: being willing to do anything for their grandkids. Including taking them to dangerous, germy places where I could possibly be contaminated or kidnapped or both. There was no way Mama would agree to this.
I sighed inwardly and looked towards Mama, waiting for her answer.
"I, I, that would be fine," Mama stammered, seeming uncertain and my jaw almost dropped in surprise. "As long as she wears gloves I think it would be okay."
"Sounds good to me," Grandma consented, bending over to clean up.
"I'll get it Grandma," I said, much too enthusiastically, still not believing what was happening. I stood there, bewildered for a second before bending over and helping her chase down run away grapes.
We exchanged a secret smile with each other and my stomach felt warm for a second.
Beside me, Mama, with gloves up to her elbows, wiped up some spilled soup and sprayed cleaner on the floor. "I warned you that clutter is dangerous," she mumbled, mostly to herself.
I didn't think it was the clutter that was dangerous though. It was grandma. But I didn't say so.
It wasn't until we had left Grandma's house that it came crashing down on me. This was the number two risky thing that I had done over the weekend. I gathered up my metaphorical tennis shoes and hopped right back on that treadmill of worry, only now it was set on double speed. It felt exhilarating to be running so fast towards adventure. I only hoped I wasn't running off a cliff.